A Celebration of the Intellect

At Emory's Sesquicentennial Commencement, literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. exhorts graduates to 'invent yourself'

By Allison O. Adams
For the seventh consecutive year, an early morning sun warmed the Commencement-readied Quadrangle, promising a perfect day for this year's exercises on May 8. From the same stage on which he had been inaugurated as University president a month before, William M. Chace officiated the historic ceremony--his first and the University's one hundred and fiftieth. "This occasion is at once solemn and happy," President Chace said to the 2,974 graduates and some 12,000 guests. "What we know here is the fact that these graduates shall never again be as they were. They came to Emory less strong than now they are. They came less well informed. They came less capacious of mind; they needed to be taught. Since they had both talent and ambition, Emory was glad to teach them. Now our work is over, now their time has come, we loose these minds upon the world. Our pride in so doing is mixed with the pride abundantly apparent this day upon this great lawn."

The thousands seated on the lawn facing Pitts Theology Library heard literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., W.E.B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities and chair of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, deliver this year's Commencement address. He spoke of American pluralism, of tolerance and hate speech, of cultural and personal identity.

"I see all of you today, the product of an elite education, about to take your turn at the helm, whether corporate, commercial, or civic," Gates said. "Karl Marx famously wrote that all world historical events appear twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. If this is so, then the strain of Marxism that will engage the coming generation will be that of Groucho and not of Karl. Forging humane commonalities out of the crucible of our differences is always an ongoing effort, rather than a task that can be finished and forgotten like a senior essay.

"But when I think back to my own student days in the late sixties and early seventies, as bewitching and bewildering as they were, I'm filled with confidence about this class, about your class, graduating some twenty years later. And really, the challenge that I set before you this morning is not so very onerous. I don't ask that you get everything right. I just ask that you do a little bit better than we did."

One graduate living up to Gates' challenge to "do a little bit better" is Dung Minh Nguyen, who received the Marion Luther Brittain Service Award, the University's highest student honor. Vice President and Dean for Campus Life Frances Lucas-Tauchar described Nguyen's many volunteer activities, including her efforts to advance the enlightenment of Vietnamese women. "Despite the opposition expressed within her cultural community," Lucas-Tauchar said, "she [began] Opportunity For All, her project for elevating women's knowledge of assertiveness, planned parenting, and self esteem." In addition, the 1995 University Scholar/Teacher Award was given to Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Politics Harvey E. Klehr, and the Thomas Jefferson Award for service to the University was presented to Frances Winship Walters Professor of Pediatrics George W. Brumley.

The University also conferred seven honorary degrees, the first to baseball and civil rights hero Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron, who was greeted with a standing ovation. "Through perseverance and fortitude," President Chace read from the degree citation, "you showed good fences make good targets." Honorary degrees were also awarded to W. Maxwell Cowan, medical scientist and educator; mathematician Paul Erdös; Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Holocaust survivor and teacher Alex Gross; philanthropist and School of Public Health benefactor Grace Crum Rollins; and journalist, author, and 1932 Emory alumnus Maxcy Reddick Hall.

Set to join Hall in the ranks of the 65,611 Emory alumni were 1,545 undergraduate degree recipients, 923 graduate degree recipients, 461 professional degree recipients, 45 certificate recipients, and 31 joint degree recipients. The class also boasts two historic graduates, Paula Washington and Isa Williams, who earned the first two Ph.D. degrees in women's studies awarded by Emory.

Although Emory's one hundred and fiftieth Commencement shared some common elements with the first--speeches, music, and prayer--the ceremony of 1840 was missing one key ingredient: graduates. That first event was billed simply as "public exercises of the College" to herald the fledgling institution's accomplishments. It was not until the following year that Emory awarded its first degrees to three young men, making the ceremony of 1841 the first official Commencement by modern definitions.

Emory's earliest commencements were perhaps as much exercises in endurance as they were celebrations of the intellect. For three or four days, from early morning to evening in the midsummer heat, a small crowd sat through plain but high-spirited programs of oration by faculty and students. A writer for the Southern Christian Advocate noted that the three men in the class of 1841 "had on the field of strenuous mental and moral exertion, fairly won the spurs and belt of College knighthood."

Along with students from the other classes, all three graduates delivered Commencement addresses, which the Advocate called "exceedingly creditable performances both as to thought, style, and delivery." Emory's nineteenth-century student oratories ranged from the self-assured ("The Indian Question Solved") to the satiric ("A Defense of Loafers") to the erudite ("Christ-like Elements in the Character of Socrates").Graduates wore suits and ties, eschewing today's traditional caps and gowns until 1902, when they became de rigueur.

The Civil War, which caused a five-year hiatus in the life of the school, is the reason this year's sesquicentennial Commencement falls 155 years after Emory's first such official ceremony in 1841, instead of 150 years. From 1861 to 1866 campus buildings were used as a Confederate hospital. "The rural town was twice overwhelmed by war's rude battalions," wrote an Advocate correspondent to the 1867 Commencement, the first after the war. "And great poverty followed. The cheerful beauty of the place has not yet been restored." Although there were no regular graduates that year, some of the returning soldiers who had been called away before completing their studies received their degrees. The reporter added, "There were many names on the rolls of these classes of those who slumber on the battlefield, and some present bore honorable scars."

The early 1900s brought renewed prosperity, and Commencement acquired more of the flavor of a festival, lasting an entire week in June. Crowds of students, parents, alumni, trustees, and church and state dignitaries attended athletic events, concerts, banquets, receptions, parties, and yes, more speeches. When the University moved to Atlanta in 1915, Commencement was first held off-campus in Wesley Memorial Church, a downtown Atlanta church that has since been demolished. By the early 1920s, the ceremony had been moved to a garden in the ravine across Kilgo Circle from the Old Law Building, now Carlos Hall. Glenn Memorial Church provided the setting from 1932 until the late 1940s, when it was moved back outdoors to a glade between Glenn Memorial and the Church School Building. In the 1950s, it was first held in the Quadrangle, where it has remained.

In the 1940s, war once again dramatically shaped the event, as noted in the program of the March 1943 Commencement:

The Service Flag on the stage honors the more than fifteen hundred Emory alumni who are already in military service. This number represents fifteen percent of Emory's living alumni. Most of the graduates receiving their diplomas today will be in uniform very soon.

Graduates often received their Army or Navy commissions the same day they accepted their diplomas. By the following year, the number of alumni in uniform had surged to 3,500.

When Emory celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its University charter in 1965, Commencement, by then a one-day affair, underwent another visible change. The University acquired the mace and the president's badge of office, two objects that evoke the medieval origins of the academic ceremony. The late George P. Cuttino, emeritus professor of medieval history and the University's chief marshal from 1976 to 1984, introduced elements now inseparable from Emory's Commencement exercises, such as distinctive regalia for administrators, the tunics worn by the chief and deputy marshals, and the bearing of the mace and the badge of office.

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